lunes, 2 de marzo de 2015

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent (Penguin Classics, 2007)
by Joseph Conrad
England, 1907

"Exterminate, exterminate!  That is the only way of progress."
(The Secret Agent, 240)

Joseph Conrad's 1907 cover of "Anarchy in the U.K." isn't as rousing or anthemic as the Sex Pistols' debut single--even if, at its best, it's sometimes its equal in ironic malevolence--but I'm willing to overlook that for r-r-right now-w-w on account of the well-known greater availability of cheap speed and antisocial power chords in the "don't know what I want/but I know how to get it" 1970s.  In any case, what concerns us here is that the title character of the bomb-throwing satirical thriller The Secret Agent is a part-time pornographer, part-time family man, and full-time employee of the Russian embassy by the name of Adolf Verloc whose involvement in a bungled plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in order to cast suspicion on London's anarchist community will make him rethink the age old adage that "Ⓐ is the only way to be!" when his wife, the cops, and of course those dirty rotten anarchists themselves all line up to fight over who wants Verloc out of the way the most by the end of the squalid tale.  Not having read any other Conrad novels since Heart of Darkness back in the Apocalypse Now/early Thatcher days, what was easily the least gratifying thing about the resumption of my reading relationship with the guy was seeing how inauthentic the Verloc character became after the bombing mishap at the center of the story.  That was almost a deal-breaker for me, in fact.  Fortunately, what was probably the most gratifying thing about the resumption of my reading relationship with the guy was seeing what a full-on, mean-spirited loon he could be re: the art of description--saying, for example, that a good housewife turned murderess "had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms" (208) into the stabbing of her victim is probably Darwinian evidence enough, but that example positively pales in comparison to the "outrage" of an earlier one in which a certain Chief Inspector Heat examines the remains of a bombing victim on an exam room table as the reader is told "And meantime the Chief Inspector went on peering at the table with a calm face and the slightly anxious attention of an indigent customer bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher's shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner" (70).  Pre-punk punk, punk!

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

lunes, 23 de febrero de 2015

La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais

La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais (Actes Sud, 2014)
by Lola Lafon
France, 2014

If you have any doubts at all about whether dreaming up a fictitious biography of all-world Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci really could have been the smartest career move to make for someone with aspirations of writing a great, thought-provoking novel in the year 2014, then imagine my pleasure and surprise at discovering that new to me French novelist Lola Lafon not only pulled off the high degree of difficulty feat of genre acrobatics but nailed the landing as well...explaining why I was so taken by La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais [The Little Communist Who Never Smiled], a seemingly very personal book which Lafon (b. 1975), a Frenchwoman who herself grew up in Romania, has dedicated to the "petites filles de l'été 1976" ["little girls of the summer of 1976"] (318), is easy enough b/c in addition to the vitality of the prose grabbing you from the get-go with its punchy no-nonsense style, this part factual/part fictional faux-reportorial profile dedicated to the "adorable," "insupportablement mignonne" ["unbearably tiny"] (81) but supposedly über-taciturn teen Comăneci's celebrity rise and fall audaciously profits from imagined interviews between the narrator and the former child star in which reflections on the nature of girlhood/womanhood and relations between Ceaușescu's Romania and the '70s and '80s West are all dealt with insightfully and sans the usual simplifying clichés...for those maybe a little taken aback by the torrent of ironic scorn with which Lafon rains down on the idealization of adolescent gymnasts and models at the expense of their future grown-up and grown-out selves as something attributable to "le malheureux destin biologique féminin" ["the unfortunate biological destiny of the female sex"] (278), rest assured that the romancière's sardonic sense of humor also includes slightly more gender-neutral nuggets such as the description of the gold medal winning Romanian Olympic girls gymnastics team--whom coach Béla Károlyi, at least in the novel, proudly refers to as his "fillettes missiles" ["little girl missiles"] (115) at the height of the Cold War!--as "un amas d'araignées exsangues, des mini-vampires des Carpates, une armée d'enfants livides et affamées" ["a mass of anemic spiders, of mini-vampires from the Carpathians, an army of livid and starving children"] (171) in homage to the sacrifices that the perfect 10 Comăneci and her wan cohorts accepted as the price of success in exchange for giving up any semblance of a normal teen life.  Fascinating.

Lola Lafon

viernes, 20 de febrero de 2015

"Petersburg": Antipoetry and Panic

Petersburg (Penguin Classics, 2011)
by Andrei Bely [translated from the Russian by David McDuff]
Russia, 1916

Petersburg was such a fun book to read and write about that I changed my mind after Monday's usual overview/taxonomy post and decided to spend a little more time with the great novel after all before calling it revolutionary quits.  And although I probably couldn't have gone wrong taking a look at either some of the narrator's Lautréamont-like elbows to the reader's rib cage ("And even if Apollon Apollonovich is woven from our brains, he will none the less be able to frighten with another, stupendous existence that attacks by night...the aged senator will pursue you, he will pursue you, too, reader, in his black carriage: and from this day forth you will never forget him!" [67-68, ellipses added]) or to the three exclamation point ejaculatory narrative coitus interruptus of the direct address to "we the author"'s unrest-riddled homeland ("Rus, Rus!  He saw - you, you!  It was you who raised a howl with winds, with blizzards, with snow, with rain, with black ice - you raised a howl with millions of living, conjuring voices!" [99]) or, maybe best of all, to the oddball observations of the Nevsky Prospect crowds enlivened by the unexpected experimentation with comic strip POV ("The swarms of bowler hats grew dark; vengefully the top hats began to gleam; from all sides the nose of the ordinary man in the street began once more to hop: noses flowed by in great numbers: acquiline, cockerel-like, hen-like, greenish, grey; and - a nose with a wart on it: absurd, hurried, enormous" [442]), what I'd like to do today instead is just to share two of the more, cough, lyrical examples of the cracked antipoetry and panic strains present in Bely's prose.  Here, let's start here, shall we?

The days were foggy, strange: over the north of Russia poisonous October walked with frozen tread; and in the south he spread muggy mists.  Poisonous October blew a golden sylvine whisper, and humbly that whisper lay down on the earth, - and humbly a rustling aspen crimson lay down on the earth, in order to twine and chase at the feet of the passing pedestrian, and to whisper, weaving from the leaves the yellow-red alluvial deposits of words.  That sweet peeping of the blue tit, which in September bathes in a leafy wave, had not bathed in a leafy wave for a long time: and the blue tit itself now hopped lonely in a black mesh of branches, which like the mumbling of a toothless old man all autumn sends its whistle out of woodlands, leafless groves, front gardens and parks.

When I first read this passage from page 94, I remember being pretty amused by the "poetic" personification of "poisonous October" walking with a frozen tread and by the explosion of colors--golden, crimson, yellow-red, etc.--pressed into service galley slave style for what appears to be a prose send-up of pastoral poetry.  Bely, you're so urban doom!  The simile having to do with "the mumbling of a toothless old man all autumn" also amused me for its novelty value and semi-meanness.  However, I really began to get geeked up over this Russian antipoetry when I realized that what I'd taken to be an archaic or variant spelling of "sylvan" was in fact the correct spelling of the previously unknown to me mineral sylvine or sylvite, the salt of which is said to be used in lethal injections and fertilizers.  Suddenly, the idea of "a golden sylvine whisper" or fertilizer air kiss sounded a little too bucolic for this city boy!  Before moving on, I should probably point out that the next paragraph begins "the days were foggy, strange" and yet another paragraph three pages later begins "The days were foggy, strange: poisonous October walked with frozen tread"--repetition being a hallmark of Bely's poetic and/or antipoetic style--and that a more sinister reading of the color symbolism cloaked in the "aspen crimson" and "yellow-red alluivial deposits of words" descriptions is suggested by the title of the segment: "Arguments in the Street Became More Frequent."

Having antipoetically foregrounded the idea that those ill-omened October 1905 days were foggy, strange and poisonous all over the land, the enthusiastically Pushkin-spouting narrator later takes to us a working class tavern in Petersburg where, in a segment titled "I Annihilate Irrevocably," self-proclaimed party member and "official of the secret police" Pavel Yakovlevich Morkovin drunkenly tries to bully Nikolai Apollonovich into honoring his terrorist commitment to murder his own father over seven glasses of vodka (285).  Although the panic-stricken Nikolai's resistance is mostly of the passive sort during the build-up to the scene, there's nothing passive about Bely's phantasmagoric writing as you'll see when you read about the strange transformation that follows (286):

Then from behind the edge of the table Pavel Yakovlevich, bending over the notebook, thrust forward his head, which looked as though it were attached not to his neck, but to his two hands; for a single moment he became quite simply a monster: at that moment Nikolai Apollonovich saw: a foul head, blinking little eyes, with hair that looked like doghair groomed with a comb, snapping in a repulsive laugh, with yellow folds of skin, ran above the table on ten twitching fingers, looking like an enormous insect: a ten-legged spider, rustling over the paper with its feet.
But it was all a comedy...

For me, the most charming part of the comedy in what the narrator will assure us was "a charming little joke!" isn't the monstrosity of it all per se but rather the Mad magazine-like gleefulness of the allusion to "hair that looked like doghair groomed with a comb."  A nice touch, no?  In any event, even though the reader is told that Pavel Yakovlevich merely "wanted to frighten Ableukhov with the pretence of this investigation," it's perhaps worth noting that a mere twenty pages later, even the sun, "the golden, thousand-armed Titan of old," also appears to Nikolai as an insectoid harbinger of doom or what is more precisely characterized as "a most enormous thousand-legged tarantula, attacking the earth with insane passion..." (307).  Other than the fact that senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov now appears in household mirrors looking like "death in a frock-coat" (305), is it any wonder that his conflicted wannabe terrorist son is such a troubled lad?  I thought not--fun stuff!

lunes, 16 de febrero de 2015


Petersburg (Penguin Classics, 2011)
by Andrei Bely [translated from the Russian by David McDuff]
Russia, 1916

A spiritual ancestor of Musil's The Man Without Qualities in terms of its coupling of a disarmingly playful narrative voice with an idiosyncratic but irresistible storytelling style all wrapped up in the guise of a lurid thriller, Petersburg--hailed by everybody from Nabokov to Obooki and now little old me--is, if anything, somehow even better and more unhinged than I'd been told it was.  Fucking fantastic stuff.  In the Russian Literature of Doom year of 1905, a jittery stranger hands sleepyheaded St. Petersburg student, ladies man, and would be revolutionary Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov "a most inoffensive little bundle" ("It's literature, I expect?..."  "Well, no...") in order to blow up--as it turns out--a well known enemy of the people (100-101).  But as fate would have it, the ticking time bomb of a terror target is none other than Nikolai's elderly father, the distinguished senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, last seen depicted on the cover "of a humorous little street journal" with "completely green ears, enlarged to massive dimensions, against the blood-red background of a burning Russia" (8).  As that last little descriptive bit might indicate, one of the things I loved about this novel was Bely's elaborate exploitation of colors--both in the way that the senator's green ears, a running gag the length of the story, seem to parallel Petersburg's poisonous "green waters, seething with bacilli" (66) and in the way that the establishment politician Apollon Apollonovich himself feels the color red to be "an emblem of the chaos that was leading Russia to ruin" (217).  Similarly, in addition to the tome's prole art threat-style appeal to the visual senses, there's also a corresponding lush audio element to Bely's prose as in the apostrophe to "Petersburg, Petersburg!" in which the narrator addresses the Romanov city as a "a cruel-hearted tormentor" and "an unquiet ghost" pursuing and even attacking his thoughts over the years (66) and in the Homeric epithet-like descriptions scattered throughout the novel such as this one reverse-poeticizing a suburb of Petersburg as the "many-chimneyed, many smoke-columned Kolpino!" (130).  One of the great novels and a surprisingly mischievous one at that--not least because a good chunk of the way into Petersburg and beginning to wonder whether the once loving but now dysfunctional father-son relationship between the two Ableukhovs would ultimately deter young Nikolai from his revolutionary resolve to turn his autocratic senator father into "blood-red slush" (315), I looked at one of translator David McDuff's many helpful footnotes and learned that the snippet of mad, utopian "political" dialogue that had just made me laugh whilst hearing it come out of one of the more crackpot characters' mouths--"The bourgeoisie, sensing its end, has seized upon mysticism: we shall leave the sky to the sparrows and from the kingdom of necessity create the kingdom of freedom" (146)--was actually lifted from that dry Teutonic theoretician Engels.  Too funny!

Andrei Bely (1880-1934)

Dwight of A Common Reader, one of the trio of bloggers along with Obooki and Tom whose pro-Petersburg comments were almost 100% responsible for my purchase of the novel over a year ago (thanks, I should have listened to you all a lot sooner!), has written eleven posts on the work.  You can check out Dwight's summary here.  Also, [P] of books, yo has a Petersburg piece here; Steve of languagehat has three posts on Petersburg here, here and here; and Tony of Tony's Reading List has his own Petersburg post here.

miércoles, 28 de enero de 2015

French Bingo 2015

Wasn't planning on joining any reading challenges this year but have decided to make a lone, enthusiastic exception for the French Bingo 2015 Reading Challenge after host Emma of words and peace kindly extended me a personal invitation to play along.  What can I say?  I'm a sucker for the personal touch.  Although Emma's bingo rules allow quite a bit of wiggle room for non-French authors to be read as part of the entertainment, I'm taking her up on her offer to make things "more difficult" for myself by only reading French authors (no interlopers!) to fill in the squares.  Please note that while I won't be listing any proposed reads for French Bingo, I remain amenable to suggestions as always.  On that note, merci beaucoup to Emma for hosting the event and thanks as well to anybody who's willing to recommend a French book to me at some point.

French Bingo 2015 Books and Related Reading
Le Vice-consul by Marguerite Duras (A5)
Double blanc by Yasmina Khadra

lunes, 26 de enero de 2015

Le sermon sur la chute de Rome

Le sermon sur la chute de Rome (Actes Sud, 2012)
by Jérôme Ferrari
France, 2012

Jérôme Ferrari's ace 2012 Prix Goncourt winner Le sermon sur la chute de Rome [The Sermon on the Fall of Rome] is such a brisk, invigorating affair from almost every imaginable point of view that it's easy to overlook how distressing the novel is in terms of the moral that can be drawn from its various crisscrossing storylines.  Still, with chapter titles borrowed from Augustine's sermons on the fall of Rome and la fin du monde theme evoked in the form of passing references to the French traumas suffered at the hands of "barbarians" at Dien Bien Phu, in the Algerian war, and in the loss of the country's colonies in the African interior not to mention the agony of the German occupation of France during World War II, it's probably no surprise that man's inhumanity to man is one of Ferrari's most pressing concerns.  For our purposes, suffice it to say that Matthieu Antonetti and Libero Pintus are longtime friends who, following the philosophical siren call of Leibniz, decide to drop out of grad school and take over a struggling hometown bar in a village in their native Corsica.  For a time drink, the ladies, and the good life lead the two to fancy that they've fashioned the Leibnizian slacker version of "le meilleur des mondes possibles" ["the best of all possible worlds"] (99), but as convincingly as these salad days are portrayed do concepts like "la bonté de Dieu" ["the goodness of God"] (Ibid.) really have anything to do with the chimerical nature of human happiness given the back story of Antonetti's family history and the long arm of destiny?  I won't touch on any of Ferrari's answers except to say that the narrator provides an optimistic reply to the question by extolling the often unfathomable ways in which "l'amitié est un mystère" ["friendship is a mystery"] (75) and, indeed, can even serve as a form of salvation, and furnishes an altogether more pessimistic reply when advising us that Matthieu and Libero rather than God "étaient les seuls démiurges" ["were the soul demiurges"] of their world and that "le démiurge n'est pas Dieu le créateur" ["the demiurge isn't God the Creator"] but actually man himself.  Man rather than God, according to this way of thinking, is the architect of his own destruction, but whether that actually exonerates a god who is oblivious of "sa création" ["his creation"] after having built him up "pierre après pierre" ["stone by stone"] (99) is perhaps a matter for someone else of a more philosophical bent to take up in my stead.  For me, the first great book of the new year--reminiscent of Bolaño for the warm, occasionally humorous, very down to earth prose and of both Bolaño and Sebald for the scandalized observation that "les cadavres oubliés" ["the forgotten corpses"] of days gone by "ne sont plus que l'humus fertile du monde nouveau" ["are nothing more than the fertile humus of the new world"] (129).

Jérôme Ferrari

Thanks to Scott of seraillon and Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog for recommending Le sermon sur la chute de Rome to me last year, the former via a suggestion for my participation in the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge and the latter via this review.  Outstanding choice, messieurs.

sábado, 17 de enero de 2015

Le Vice-consul

Le Vice-consul (Gallimard, 2011)
par Marguerite Duras
France, 1966

Le Vice-consul c'est un roman triste, presque tragiquement triste en effet, sur la douleur et la folie, la mémoire et l'oubli.  L'intrigue commence, à Calcutta, avec l'histoire d'une mendiante errante de l'Asie du Sud-Est qui, après d'avoir vendu son enfant à une femme bourgeoise, arrive en Inde dix ans plus tard, où elle dort entre les lépreux sur la rive du Gange avec « sa mémoire abolie » (576).  « Elle est folle », on lit.  « Son sourire ne trompe pas » (653).  Comme par hasard, le vice-consul à Lahore est arrivé à Calcutta il y a cinq semaines après avoir devenu fou à Lahore d'où « il a été déplacé à la suite d'incidents qui ont été estimés pénibles par les autorités diplomatiques de Calcutta » (559).  Quel genre d'incidents?  On ne le sait pas vraiment, mais on dit qu'il « a fait le pire »: « il tirait la nuit sur les jardins de Shalimar où se réfugient les lépreux et les chiens » (591).  À partir de ces prémisses, Duras a pu engendrer un livre « anticolonial » dans lequel elle cherche la complicité du lecteur à établir un parallèle entre la mendiante et le vice-consul quant à sa condition de paria.  C'est une affaire délicate.  En premier lieu, c'est difficile de ressentir de la pitié pour ou le vice-consul ou la mendiante à cause de leurs actions.  Néanmoins, Duras plaide la cause de l'isolement comme le lien entre les personnages principaux. Pendant que le vice-consul attend sa prochaine nomination, par exemple, il semble tomber amoureux de l'ambassadrice Anne-Marie Stretter, une femme dit être tormentée « par indifférence à la vie » (624).  Elle n'est pas intéressée en le vice-consul, qui pense d'elle que « son ciel, ce sont les larmes » (636); pas aimé et derangé, il bredouille des choses comme « je sais, je suis une plaie » (633) et il pleure dans la nuit.  Bien que Duras soit souvent froide jusqu'à la cruauté avec ses personnages, son style est, comme d'habitude, fortifiant, urgent.  Quand le vice-consul et l'ambassadrice dansent au bal à la réception de l'ambassade, la romancière prend quatre paragraphes pour dire « Alors tout l'Inde blanche les regarde. », « On attend.  Ils se taisent. », « On attend.  Ils se taisent encore. », et « On attend.  Ils se taisent encore.  On regarde moins. »  (607).  La brusquerie de la prose est violente.  Ailleurs, l'écrivaine n'hésite pas à poser des questions difficiles.  «  Mais des lépreux ou des chiens, est-ce tuer que de tuer des lépreux ou des chiens? »  On notera que cette question ne reçoit pas une vraie réponse, peut-être parce que Duras aime l'ambiguïté et peut-être parce que ce crime n'importe pas tellement a la société des Blancs de Calcutta.  « Les lépreux, de loin, avez-vous remarqué?  On les distingue mal du reste, alors... » (591).

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)

Le Vice-consul paraît dans Tome II des Oeuvres complètes de Duras (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2011, 543-657).